‘Was your departure from the cabinet harder on you or Imran Khan?’ I asked a remarkably relaxed Asad Umar, as a follow up to my conversation with him in New York City, just days before he resigned. ‘It was harder on Khan Sb,’ he replied, without needing a moment to think. ‘He took this decision with a great deal of difficulty and it’s been emotionally tough on him. Personally, I was on the verge of burn out. My stress level has dropped dramatically. I’ve gone to the gym three days in a row and my wife & I are going to Hunza for three days next week for a much-needed break.’
Next, Asad shared: ‘On policy, institutional reform and selection of people, we were focused on the fundamentals. For example, we were finally able to separate tax collection from policy-making on taxation. This is something everyone wanted to do but no one has been able to do. We were able to get this legislation done and this will pay off in the long term. On selection of people I was able to appoint highly qualified and well-respected professionals to lead SECP, NBP and BISP.’
‘There is no short term fix to Pakistan’s problems,’ said Asad. ‘As part of our medium-term economic framework, we were taking the right, albeit painful, measures to ensure sustained economic progress and overcome the two chronic deficits that hold our economy hostage. We brought the reform agenda front and center into our policy framework.’
‘If what you’re saying is true, what went wrong? Was it performance on the economy, a communications failure or political failure?’ I asked. ‘It was a combination. I could have done much more on the communications front. We were thinking that we are working fourteen hour days and making policies in line with our manifesto, so it’s better to be focused on the actual work versus communication. In hindsight, we could have spent a lot more time and resources on communications.’
‘Also, it’s challenging to engage in economic reform at a time of political instability,’ Asad acknowledges. ‘For example, the accountability process was running at the same time as painful measures to control the balance of payment crisis. And even though the accountability process is led by independent institutions, it has political ownership from the PTI. This means we need to have nerves of steel while trying to take on, what perhaps in hindsight, is too many things at the same time.’
‘There’s malicious propaganda about you, coming from people loosely associated within the party like Farhan Virk, does this critique hurt you more than opposition criticism?’ I asked. ‘Without commenting on anyone in particular, of course, it hurts more when criticism comes from people who you think are your colleagues and loyal to you. As far as the opposition is concerned, I have thick skin. I do take comfort in the fact that, despite the intense polarisation in the country, no one has questioned my financial integrity and incorruptibility. For example, I was very surprised and genuinely honoured by the positive tweet from China’s deputy ambassador to Pakistan.’
‘Many in the middle class, supported PTI because of your presence. They’re now thoroughly disenfranchised. How can you ask them to support Naya Pakistan, when you’re no longer around in the cabinet?’ I asked next. ‘I fundamentally reject the premise of your question,’ Asad shared. ‘I entered the party because of Imran Khan’s vision and as long as the core values of reform and in-corruptibility hold true, I will always support the cause of Naya Pakistan. I have never been a blind follower and have disagreed with Khan sb in the past too. However, I genuinely believe in Naya Pakistan and continue contributing to it.’
‘I’m not sure about the rest of the economy but you’ve certainly established an informal betting industry around which cabinet position you’ll take next. Are you planning to join the cabinet again?’ I asked. ‘Long before you were born,’ Asad shared. ‘There was a movie called Love Story in which the lead actress is on her death bed from cancer and the lead actor, Ryan O’Neal says, strangers say goodbye, friends say, until we meet again. I still believe in the dream of Naya Pakistan.’
Finally, Asad disclosed that he wants to ask people for suggestions, through this interview, on how he should contribute to Naya Pakistan, even outside a cabinet or government position. Be careful what you wish for, I quipped back, especially since my last interview with him appeared to be the kiss of death, with his resignation following within days.
Asad is open to suggestions for his next career move but my personal analysis is that we’ll be seeing him back in the cabinet after Ramazan. Anything short of that would let an open wound fester, within Naya Pakistan’s support base in the urban middle class. The reaction from PTI’s base has been menacing; indicating that Asad and Imran’s political fortunes can only sink or rise together.